Technically speaking, I now realize, the first bicycle to enter our household was not the Kona. It was a balance bike that was the index case in this newfound obsession. Way back in 2007, when our son was turning two, my sister and brother-in-law brought over what I now realize was a very generous birthday gift, a balance bike. We assumed, may we one day be forgiven, that this was one of those gifts that reflects the taste of the giver, a bicycle gift from a lifetime bicycle obsessive, comparable to the decorative crystal candy dishes given as wedding gifts by our great-aunts that reflected their ambition for us to lead a far less itinerant lifestyle. At the time, balance bikes were not the hot-ticket holiday must-haves that they are today, and our primary reaction was confusion. Our son was too young for a bicycle, and this one seemed to be lacking some critical parts.
The model that my brother-in-law chose was actually an informed consumer purchase. The tires, unlike those of many balance bicycles, were filled with air rather than being solid rubber. The bicycle was light enough to be picked up easily by a toddler. And although our son was at the time too young to appreciate it, the bicycle was also covered with pictures of pirates. You can’t buy that kind of quality décor in these modern-day balance bikes.
This bicycle was valued enough to survive the most recent move from our old apartment, and after five moves in as many years we had become ruthless about what we were willing to pack. I had never paid the slightest attention to this bike beyond the practical considerations of finding a place to put it and helping our son ride it. This bicycle is the only reason we owned a pump. I had to look up the brand’s history by year to realize it was the Specialized Hotwalk. Is it a real bike if it doesn’t have a serial number?
Despite our reservations at the time we got it, our son was committed to learning to ride the Hotwalk. At two he was too short to ride even with the seat lowered as far as it would go, but he found it fascinating, and thanks to a growth spurt that continues to this day, which has led pediatricians to predict his adult height at somewhere around six and a half feet, he picked it up quickly enough. He grew bored quickly with his initial efforts to crab-walk it along and started pushing off hard enough that he cruised down entire city blocks without stopping. Other parents watched with amazement as he literally rode circles around their older kids on bikes with training wheels. To this day, although he has long since outgrown it, he still feels most comfortable on this bike, and will at times rip it from his sister’s hands in an effort to ride it. He jumped directly from this bike to a pedal bike. He makes no secret of his disdain for training wheels, which he has never used. This can be embarrassing when we meet other families at the park.
With the benefit of hindsight, I realize that this bike is the reason that our determinedly cautious son, who to our joy has never needed to be rushed to the emergency room after causing himself a debilitating injury, was even willing to consider climbing aboard a rental bike during our stay in Copenhagen. Riding in a child seat and as a stoker places some basic balancing demands on kids, and although wild kicks and swings are pretty trivial for an adult rider to correct when kids are small, they get more challenging as the kids grow heavier and longer-limbed. Our son’s comfort with the balance bike translated easily to comfort climbing on and off the back of an adult bike, and has made it much easier to haul a 45 pound passenger on our commutes.
As our daughter grew bigger, she wanted to follow his lead, and in the last few months, has begun to move beyond walking the bike to coasting. We added a dinosaur horn to the bike to make it hers, and she has learned to honk it wildly when other bikes are approaching, or might be approaching, or are visible in the distance, or when she needs to indicate that she has a horn. When we took the kids to Golden Gate Park after Christmas, we found a dozen kids her age with balance bikes in a rainbow of colors delivered by Santa.
Unlike them, she had a few months of riding under her belt, and thus led their spontaneous little balance bike gang around the Music Concourse. Honk, honk!
Our move to bicycle commuting was driven by our kids’ delight in riding. I realize now that although their eagerness to ride was triggered by renting bikes in Copenhagen, it really grew from the years our son spent on the balance bike, learning the freedom of powering himself through the world much faster than he could walk or run.